Grading, grading, grading. The worst part about teaching, in my opinion. There are so many ways to approach this constant semester task, though. And there is one approach in particular that I prefer: holistic grading. Now, holistic grading can be defined in plenty of different ways. In today’s post, I describe my version of this grading style and explain why I prefer it to using rubrics.
First off, what does “holistic” mean? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it’s “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts.” If you’re reading my blog, I’m going to assume you know what grading means. Combine these two words together into “holistic grading” and you get a version of grading that places assessing an assignment as a whole above assessing its individual parts.
I see rubric grading as the opposite approach to holistic grading in a lot of ways. Holistic grading allows me to balance the various elements of an assignment once I receive my students’ work and notice any aspects that my students have struggled with. If my students already had a rubric I created before they submitted their work, then I wouldn’t be able to use this more responsive style of grading without having to justify not following the rubric.By using holistic grading, I can insure that I'm grading the assignment that we end up with, rather than the one I imagined before my students got involved. Click To Tweet
Holistic Grading Example
Take a look at this fake rubric I created for one of my literary analysis writing assignments.
At least a few times every semester, I have students who write a literary analysis discussion post in which their thesis statements don’t match their close readings and analyses.
For example, a student’s thesis is about how a character’s negative perception of herself causes her to act aggressively towards her friends. But, their close reading and analysis is of scenes where this character’s friends get mad at her for being rude. The thesis places emphasis on the character’s self perception as the cause of her behavior. The close reading and analysis doesn’t focus on this self perception and instead focuses on the other characters’ actions. So, the thesis doesn’t actually match the rest of the post. A quick revision of the thesis would solve this problem. But, that didn’t happen before the post was submitted.
At some point when writing the post, this student got so invested in their analysis that they forgot to double-check that they were keeping closely connected to their thesis. Of course, I always remind my students to revise their posts after they draft them. But, I also know that my general education students tend to be unfamiliar with writing college-level literary analysis (or literary analysis at all) and they don’t always perceive how tangential their analysis has become to their thesis.
For this student, my following the above rubric would lead to a very low grade on this assignment. The close reading and analysis don’t actually support the thesis. The bulk of their assignment, then, earns them very few points.
By using holistic grading, however, I can give this student feedback on the issue of their thesis not matching the bulk of the post. I can remind them to revise future posts and keep on the lookout for getting off track again. When I grade the post, I can give them the credit they deserve for writing a cohesive close reading and analysis (the aspects of literary analysis that I always give the most weight to). Their grade is penalized for not having a thesis that matches the close reading and analysis, but not to the extent that it would be reduced if I was deducting points for the close reading and analysis not matching the thesis. [I hope this distinction makes sense.]
Could I still take this approach while using a rubric? Maybe. But I’d rather not limit myself by assigning total point values to different elements of an assignment before we even begin working on it as a class. Assignments can change unexpectedly as we work on them with our students. By using holistic grading, I can insure that I’m grading the assignment that we end up with, rather than the one I imagined before my students got involved.
Holistic Grading of Units
Now, I actually use unit grading for many of my assignments, as well, so I’m not saying I only assign one grade for any given major assignment. [If you want to know more about my approach to designing assignments as units, check out my accompanying YouTube video all about this topic.] I have certain assignments that include multiple elements, and those multiple elements each receive their own grade.
For example, for my group project, students turn in written materials, they lead their classmates through an activity, and then they each write a reflection on the activity. Each of these three elements are weighed differently in regard to their total grade for the assignment.
I explain this concept more in my video on unit grading (click the image below).
Each element of the unit, though, does not get assigned its own rubric. I might care more about their activity design rationale than their activity description (which I make clear when going over the assignment sheet), but an extremely detailed description can help boost up their written materials grade if their rationale is a bit lacking in detail.
When Things Go Really Wrong
As a final point, I want to briefly discuss the rare times when a student turns in work that doesn’t match the assignment requirements. For example, when a semester begins, my students complete a version of this literary autobiography assignment. In my ENG 101 course, they would need to answer a prompt like, “How have your writing practices affected you both inside and outside the classroom?” I provide examples for my students in the assignment sheet and verbally go over a couple more in class. Almost all students understand the prompt and write great writer autobiographies.
But, what about the student who states that they like creative writing and creative writing courses and then spends the rest of the autobiography writing about their favorite books? I can see how they got onto this topic, but they’re not actually telling me about their own creative writing. They aren’t answering the prompt.
Do they fail the assignment?
Do I have them rewrite the assignment even though we’ve already moved on to our next major unit?
Other instructors might take one of these approaches, and I can understand why. But, for me, the purpose of this assignment is to get to know my students on an individual level at the beginning of the course. I want them to start getting into the practice of writing for this class and I want them to start thinking of themselves as writers if they are not already doing so. To me, failing them for not answering the prompt correctly is setting them up to either hate or fear my class (or me). I don’t want us starting off the semester in this way.
Having them redo the assignment would help them better understand the assignment and the necessity of following instructions, but rewriting the assignment would likely interfere with their research for the first major unit. They are more likely to fall behind because of this split attention.
Maybe that’s not my concern.
Maybe I’m being too lenient.
These thoughts run through my mind when I encounter these types of issues, too.
But, the path I take is to deduct some points for not following the prompt, but I grade their autobiography on how deeply they considered those favorite books and the reasons why those books have so heavily influenced them. [The same way I grade the other writer autobiographies based on how deeply they consider their writing experiences and how those experiences affect them.] In my individual feedback to them, I make clear that they didn’t actually answer the prompt and that they need to be more careful in future units. I remind them that they should ask questions in class when we go over the assignment sheets or send me emails/come to my office hours if they have any questions about what I’m asking them to do.
In these rare instances, the students tend to closely follow all future assignment requirements. I think they realize they lucked out the first time around and they don’t want to risk making a costly mistake on assignments that are weighed more heavily.
In any case, I don’t have to fail the student and they don’t fall behind by needing to rewrite it (and I don’t have more work to grade in this latter case). For me, that’s a win, win.
I know my approach to grading isn’t for everyone. I’m pretty lenient because I choose to focus on the effort my students put into their work, rather than focus on what went wrong. I’ve also only taught 100-level courses. But, even if you’d take a different stance in the examples I describe above, I still think holistic grading allows for a more nuanced assessment in comparison to rubric grading. Maybe I haven’t given rubric grading enough of chance. But, for now, I’m content with my approach to grading student work.
Do you use holistic grading, rubric grading, some combination of the two, or something completely different?
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